Caspian may be the poetic apotheosis of the post-rock movement, though to fall upon simple words to describe their sound belies the thesis of instrumental music. Their compositions are beauty, in augmented soundscapes that explore the potential of music in the absence of the claustrophobic constraints of traditional songwriting. Caspian hails from the northern shores of Massachusetts and have accompanied artists such as Minus the Bear, God is an Astronaut, Red Sparowes and This Will Destroy You on national tours. Their most recent release Waking Season is one of my personal favorite albums of the past year and they are perhaps the most amiable ensemble of musicians with which it was my good fortunate to converse.
I am led through the arteries of Neumos Crystal Hall Reading Room to find the members of Caspian. One of their three guitarists, Jonny, is under the small eve of Pike’s Fish Fry enjoying a cigarette. I am told that guitarist Erin has blown an amplifier and is away in search of a speaker. We are approached from my right by Caspian’s bass player, Jon, who shares a laugh with me about the homestate we hold in common. Our trio is reunited with guitarist Philip who I met some moments before in the nave of the subterranean Barboza venue where they would headline in a few hours time. With the arrival of the drummer, Chris, our merry band traipses through the gentle rain in search of a silent place to conduct an interview. We settle for the comfortable coffee shop within Elliott Bay bookstore across the street. The musicians in my wake adore the local stores, having thumbed through records and novels before we secure a table.
SSG Music: I cannot help but wonder in present company- does your music somehow encourage the growth of beards?
Philip Jamieson: Yeah, we are all keeping it a bit more trimmed than we used to, though. It used to be unruly.
Jonny Ashburn: Joe, you are kinda growing one now. Weird.
Joe Vickers: There are more important things to worry about than shaving.
Jon McMahan: We saw a dude shaving in the car on the way here. On the Highway, hah.
SSG: I was clean shaven this morning and listened to more of your music on the way here.
SSG: With instrumental music, when does a song or album earn its title, and how do you conceive of those?
PJ: It is always after the music. I think in our situation it has always been before the record has been recorded but after the songs have been written. We have structured them out linearly in terms of what songs are going to be number one, number two, three, four, etc. so we get an idea of the language that the album is speaking. It reflects what ground the album covers, emotionally, sonically, the images and connotations it stirs in our minds and it kind of goes from there.
SSG: I have not heard you speak much of your album art. Where do those visuals come from and how do they relate to their respective albums?
PJ: This is the first time that the artwork was directly tied to the music and the [album] title. Usually it is something that is just aesthetically pleasing that seems to mimic the vibe of the album. This is the first time that I actually did the art for one of our albums, so it was a very intentional process. The artwork for Waking Season was supposed to be, and I think it came out very effectively as a minimal presentation. No frills, very direct. Very concerned with shape and form which hopefully mimicked the music a little bit. We wanted the record to be more minimal and withdrawn but also immersive at the same time. I think having artwork that is simple, sharp, clean was very intentional to represent the music. For the other stuff we always liked a subjective element and we hope the artwork does the same thing, that there is an image that looks nice and is open and expansive enough to be whatever it is to the viewer, just like the music. But this one really was more intentional this time around. If that makes sense.
SSG: It does. Would you be able to cite any non-musical influences that lend to your sound? Literary, visual, historical or perhaps physical objects?
JM: Yes. Everything in our lives to the coffee or pizza we like, to the movies and shows we like…I could throw Game of Thrones out there…
JV: Yeah, as far as literary, Game of Thrones is in there now.
[murmured consent. Erin returns from his search to join us]
JV: [Philip] got me into Game of Thrones while we were mixing out here in Seattle actually. It is funny you asked about song titles really. Because we named- how many songs did we name after we mixed them? Just that one right? We changed it. “Fire Made Flesh” used to be called “The Furies” which was cool but then you saw the episode where the Quaithe lady is like ‘Beware; people will lust for your dragons because dragons are fire made flesh and fire is power.’ So there is a literary influence for you. I get a lot of reading [of the series] done while I am on the road.
SSG: Why the Old South Church? Why did you decide to release a live album of that performance?
PJ: We always wanted to release a live record and not just at any nondescript no-name club but somewhere that we felt captured our sound effectively and that church was just…all the reverb on that record was natural. There was no atmosphere added to that. We really are attracted to the idea of playing in different spaces for a whole bunch of different reasons. I mean, a sanctuary is religiously a place of worship and we are certainly not religious at all. In no way. But we do view our music as a form of worship I guess. I do not know. I suppose we are trying to pay homage to the nice things and the ugly things and everything in life with our stuff so it is sort of like a reaction. Well, a sanctuary is a structure that is a place that you can be at peace with your thoughts and emotions hopefully and to perform our music in a place like that is…I don’t know…but we would like to play places like that a lot more.
JA: We played that church in Ireland- oh no, in England. Every room has a different feel. Playing in rooms with history and big open spaces for the sound to travel sits really well with us.
SSG: One of my favorite quotes by Albert Camus says ‘If the world were clear, art would not exist.’ In that vein, do you feel the role and necessity of music today, especially rock, has changed since the era of Sexual Liberation and social revolution?
PJ: Wow. That is a really good question. Music has been around for a long time obviously and rock music is still a relatively young form of musical expression. The kind of rock music we are doing in the grand scheme of all music is just so new and novice. Has it changed? I think it is always growing and mutating, ups and downs. That is a really great quote by Camus, I have not heard it before. What do you guys think?
JM: That is a really good question. I think music still has the same power that it did maybe even hundreds of thousands of years ago. Ultimately music brings people together, but you could listen to it and make it just by yourself, just for yourself. I do not know. That is a question I could dwell on for a long time.
PJ: Music is a language that when done effectively can convey something true about the human condition, the human experience. I do not mean just post-rock music, I mean any music. It could be classical music or a Carly Rae Jepsen pop song. When music is at the height of its power it is speaking something “true”, in quotations, about the human experience and I do not think the human condition has ever changed from day one. I guess whatever the human condition is, it is always evolving but the core elements have always been there. We always desire for truth, beauty, envy all of that stuff, and music has always been a sort of vessel to speak to the presence of those things. So I think it is kind of the same. Unless some kind of major revolution happens in the human condition- it is interesting you mentioned the Sexual Liberation cause that definitely is something that tried to push the human agenda forward or in a different direction but that did not change the core nature of humanity. I do not think anything could really do that. Music is just something that speaks to those principles. It is changing in little ways but it has always been the same.
JA: Auto-tune. [laughs]
SSG: What does instrumental composition mean to how you interact with fans, when there are no lyrics with which to empathize?
JA: It brings you closer. They can take it anywhere they want. I feel like from day to day we will go different places with it out on tour. In shows, if I have something stuck in my mind that I need to work through, sometimes I just get lost up there and without lyrics… instrumental music is a good way to work through your personal battles.
Erin Burke-Moran: There was a good friend of ours in San Francisco the other day that said something that was speaking to all of us. He said ‘the interesting thing about instrumental music as art is that there is a story we are creating in this moment.’ He looked around at everyone, around the whole set and it was like everyone was filling out the story with their lives, with their little moments and it was an interesting way to think how everything sort of comes together in that context. You do not have someone telling you that or pointing it out. It is something I have been thinking about, crowd interaction. When he said that the other night, it made so much sense. It is a weird thing at times. It is kind of funny too.
JA: Collective Experience.
PJ: An audience is a collection of a lot disparate, personal experiences that are brought together under one roof in front of one set of speakers and it is an opportunity for everyone to explore those experiences in their own way. The great thing about instrumental music is that it allows for that subjectivity. There is no anchor, no guiding. No one shouting a bunch of platitudes at you trying to make up your mind for you in terms of what you think about. I feel like it is important to remember with us, and I feel like this is the case with a lot of post-rock instrumental bands, we definitely don’t have anything against music with lyrics. I mean, 90% of music I listen to has vocals. It is different for all of us. Unless it is Bob Dylan, I do not listen to music to get something out of the lyrics. I just view it as a different melodic texture. Even my favorite artist Mark Kozelek, I do not care what he is singing about. It is the way he uses his voice and the tone of his voice. He could be singing about the weather and it would sound nice. I think with our audience, people like going to a show and being able to let their personal experience dwell amidst all these other experiences and not speak them out loud but know there is a common sympathetic environment for them to hang out in for an hour or two when the music is happening. We enjoy that a lot as performers as well. We are bring our own experiences to the table as well. They just do not need to be shouted at each other. Sort of a collective, private experience in a way. Which is nice.
SSG: Is there anything your fans or audiences do that make you guys especially happy as musicians?
JV: When people cheer before we go on and when we bow, I like that. When people recognize the songs, that is really encouraging. That is amazing.
JA: We do not get to see it often as there is not much decent amount light, but I can tell really easily even if it is a subtle look to see a person’s face from up there and feel if there is a connection…and…um…what was the question again? Oh yeah! Even if is something small like closing your eyes or rocking your head back you can really tell if they are into it and it helps us get into it. It is the little stuff for me that affects how I am playing.
EB: I like it when people really rock out with us, man! I do not expect it all the time but it keeps me going.
SSG: Is there anything you would change, such as labels, copyright, piracy, about the music industry?
PJ: Wow. I do not know. The music industry is a dying industry. It’s like a sinking ship. It’s weird. Ten years ago everyone said in ten years there won’t be CDs and five years ago people said the music industry would be completely dead and none of those things have completely happened. In general, I wish the music industry was more flexible when it comes to things like Spotify where people can stream for free. If they played ball a little better and realized this is the future instead of sticking their heads in the sands it would create a foundation to build upon which may allow musicians to actually make a living out of this which now is more or less impossible unless you are in three or four percent of the music industry which is a bummer. Copyright stuff, we do not have a lot of experience with that. We have licensed our stuff out and all the deals we got with that stuff seemed pretty fair. But when it comes to the nitty gritty fine details stuff, I am not sure we are all that well-versed with it.
EB: It is tough, you know? It is just like this big beast that is rolling along. I feel like I am just starting to begin to understand how it works, to be honest.
SSG: Do you have any final thoughts?
EB: Play foosball!
[excited agreement. From what I see, both Erin and Jonny have matching tattoos of a foosball tabletop]
SSG: Nice philosophy. I think it was Confucius that said that, right?
JA: He was a wise man. Where is the closest foosball table?
SSG: I will track one down and let you know before the end of your show.
[expressions of gratitude and appreciation]